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All About My Papa

A journalist unearths a book on Palestine—and his grandfather’s secret history

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battered copy of 'The Puzzle of Palestine'

During the late summer of 2003, I took the bus down to Washington D.C. for a visit with my grandfather, who was then 91. Even after retiring from the State Department in 1980, Papa, as I knew him, kept his residence in the leafy diplomatic precincts of the city. His 34 years in the diplomatic corps included posts as ambassador to Chile and Cyprus, and he had never entirely stopped comporting himself in a refined, officious manner. I remember him as the stentorian presence in the corner, sipping a sherry and occasionally stepping out for a tennis match. As he aged, he kept his polish, but the toll of time had consigned him mostly to the reading chair in his den, where he slowly worked through each of the major national newspapers. My weekend visit, I presumed, would mainly involve prodding him on slow walks around the block.

One afternoon, while Papa dozed downstairs, I wandered up to the den. On one wall hung his certificates of appointment, signed by Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon. The opposite wall held bookshelves, and like a good bibliophile I scanned the spines, seeking insight into a grandfather of whom I had known too little. There were histories of Latin America. There were biographies of statesmen. And then, between a few phone directories of State Department officials, I saw it: a slender volume called The Puzzle of Palestine, with a cracking dust jacket and a crude image of a disintegrating puzzle on the cover. The last name printed on the spine was my own.

I carefully pulled it out, breaking off a piece of the faded blue cover in the process. I had never heard about this book, even though, as I quickly saw, the author was indeed my grandfather, David Popper, writing in 1938 about the demands for a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. As I flipped through the first few pages I learned that he had had written it after college, when he worked as a research associate at the Foreign Policy Association, an educational organization started 1918 in the internationalist spirit of the League of Nations. Eleanor Roosevelt had been among its incorporators.

The book captivated me and clashed with my assumption that Papa, as I knew him, had consistently steered clear of “Jewish” topics in both his work as a foreign policy wonk and in his personal life. Although his grandparents were Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe, Papa’s family had assimilated quickly. By the time Papa’s 13th birthday came around, the family had moved from the Lower East Side to the suburb of White Plains, by way of the Bronx. After Papa’s bar mitzvah, his father pulled the family out of the Orthodox synagogue they attended and joined a Reform one. Soon thereafter Papa decided that even that was too much religion.

Papa could not escape his heritage—he had to overcome a Jewish quota to get into Harvard, and once there had no choice but to room with a fellow Jew—but as a scholar and a diplomat he dedicated himself to a world beyond parochial identities; “shibboleths” he called them with disdain. At Harvard, he was a leader of the Model League of Nations. Later, at the State Department, he spent much of his career in posts at the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

Standing there, in his den, with the slender volume in my hands, I wondered how my grandfather had come to write about the problem of Jewish refugees before World War II. I did know that his upwardly mobile family had done a lot of traveling. After college he spent a year on a fellowship in Germany. During a visit to Munich, in 1932, he saw Hitler and some brownshirts at a beer hall chatting around a picnic table. But his travels had never taken him to the Middle East, as far as I knew, and his later work never turned to Jewish matters. My own father had taken his cues from Papa: At dinner in our house, we were more likely to discuss the latest events in the Congo than those in Israel.

I had followed this path growing up, but with a slight detour. In 2003, after graduating from college, I spent a year in Berlin on a fellowship. There is something about the old capital of Nazi Germany that stretches even the most atrophied of Jewish muscles. When I came around to writing a few articles for American papers I was drawn to Jewish topics and soon enough I had landed a job at the Forward. When I got to the office in New York, just a few weeks before my visit with Papa, casual conversations about issues like intermarriage and Yom Kippur were forcing me to ask what an ethnic past means for a rationalist like me. Is Israel just another country? Are Jews just like any other people? In my first stabs at answering these questions I thought I was breaking new ground in my family, but The Puzzle of Palestine suggested that the territory may have been tread before.

That night at dinner, I asked my grandfather about the book. He couldn’t recall much in the way of specifics—his memory had faded significantly—but he did retain the basic contours of his belief system. “Some people who are Jewish by religion have attached to that religious faith a political allegiance,” he told me. He had on the pressed shirt he always wore around the house, and spoke with his familiar, almost academic tone.

“If you go to Brooklyn, for instance,” he went on, “you find a number of people who are much more interested in what happens in Israel than what happens in the United States. I can’t feel that way. I’m sympathetic—I would like to see that state do well—but I can’t feel a part of it in any way.”

It was a succinct statement of the family philosophy but it didn’t answer my questions. What was this book and how did it connect to my grandfather? After dinner, I turned to Papa’s oral history, which my aunt had recorded and transcribed in 1992. In a discussion of his work at the Foreign Policy Association, Papa had dedicated all of two sentences to the book: “There was also a set of pamphlets called Headline Books. I wrote one that got quite a good deal of publicity on Palestine, The Puzzle of Palestine.

And so I turned to the book itself. The 1938 my grandfather described in his book was decidedly unlike the world I know. Terms like “Israel” and “Holocaust,” that define so much contemporary history, politics, and identity, are absent. In a chart of Jewish populations around the world, Papa listed the 2.5 million Jews in Russia next to a miniature hammer and sickle, and the 690,000 Jews in Germany and Austria next to a swastika, as if it were a benign medal count.

In Palestine at that time, the British were clumsily negotiating between the conflicting demands of the territory’s 1.7 million Arabs and the 400,000 Jews who had streamed in during previous decades. While the Balfour Declaration in 1917 had promised Palestine as a “national home” for the Jews, a 1915 letter by the British high commissioner for the region, Henry McMahon, had been interpreted as pledging the region to Sharif Hussein bin Ali in exchange for support against the Ottoman Empire. “How much easier it would be for the British to govern the country if it could be run like any British Crown Colony!” my grandfather exclaims in the volume’s opening pages.

What stood out about my grandfather’s writing was his scrupulous balance. He referred to the global Jewish community as “they,” never once mentioning that he was included in that “they.” He enumerated the ways in which the Jewish settlers in Palestine had salvaged desert land and enriched the economy, aiding Arabs in the process. But he also carefully pointed out how Jews had barred Arabs from jobs in new citrus plantations and manufacturing plants, stirring resentment at each step.

“It is an open question whether, as long as Zionists do not modify their aims, the gulf between Jew and Arab can be bridged,” he wrote. “If it cannot, the whole Arab world may some day rally under the banner of ‘Death to the Jewish National Home.’”

My grandfather was not far off the mark. But where did this prescience leave him in relation to the growing Jewish demands for a homeland? Searching for clues, I saw his skepticism of any party that made claims to land based on ethnicity and I thought back to the mild disdain for jingoism and even religion itself that I detected in his oral history.

It took further digging to find out more. In late 2004, a year into my job at the Forward, I was poking around the Internet for traces of my grandfather when I found an essay he wrote in 1939 for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science entitled “A Homeland for Refugees.”

For my grandfather, the fact that he seemed interested in the plight of the Jews did not mean that he was siding with them. He brushed off Zionist rhetoric and concluded, “Palestine alone can never afford a solution for the Jewish refugee problem…. It is probable that waxing Arab nationalism will apply a severe check to Zionist hopes.” He recommended that Jews consider less explosive locations for a homeland—Alaska, for instance, where Jews could work “processing fisheries products, and developing an intrinsically promising wood-pulp and paper industry.”

Clearly, I thought, my grandfather’s fidelity to objectivity trumped the pull of blood.

A year later, though, I was in D.C. again, and the plot thickened during a Harvard alumni event that I attended with my grandfather and Edith Fierst, whose late husband, Herb, had been a State Department colleague of Papa’s.

Edith was interested in my work at the Forward. After a long career as a high-powered Washington lawyer, she had taken up a number of Jewish causes. Herb had been an unapologetic Zionist during his tenure at the State Department. When he moved to a law firm, later in his career, he took on top leadership positions in AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee.

After various alumni officers gave their spiels, as our half-eaten plates of chocolate cake were being cleared, Edith asked, “You do know what your grandfather did for Israel, don’t you?”

“No,” I told her. I had no idea.

“That’s funny,” she said, “but not entirely surprising. I would say that he might lay a certain claim to being responsible for Israel’s creation.”

My eyes nearly popped out of my head. I wanted to hear more. But my grandfather was tired—he’d been struggling with all the noise and commotion—and wanted to leave.

Next time I came to D.C. I visited Edith in her Chevy Chase home. Over a plate of cookies she took me back to the autumn of 1947, when the U.N. General Assembly was preparing for a vote on whether to partition Palestine; the result would determine the fate of a Jewish state.

At that time my grandfather—recently sprung from army intelligence—was a minor functionary in the State Department’s U.N. delegation. As the vote on partition neared, Papa visited Herb’s office, and, with hushed urgency, asked him to take a walk. Outside, he told Herb that Arabists at State had succeeded in getting an opponent of partition to lead the U.S. delegation in negotiations, imperiling the chances that pro-partition Zionists would win the vote.

Herb immediately passed my grandfather’s tip on to a Jewish assistant to President Truman, who was pro-partition, and also recommended that his own boss, General John Hilldring—similarly pro-partition—lead the talks. By the time Herb returned to his office, Truman had made the personnel change. “Had it not been for General Hilldring, there might not have been an Israel,” Herb wrote in a 1999 essay on the subject for the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington (though he didn’t identify my grandfather by name).

To an outsider, it may not seem surprising that my grandfather underwent an about-face regarding the Jews. In the interim the Holocaust had taken place, persuading many people who’d been ambivalent about Zionism to embrace it. Edith Fierst was one of them, but she never observed a similar shift in Papa.

“He never seemed to want to talk about it,” she told me. “I asked him about it once or twice but he wasn’t interested.”

Papa was ever the objective critic, a trait that comes through in his oral history, in which he chastises Israel in 1992 for the same intransigence he saw in 1938. Moreover, Papa was a company man, respectful of the chain of command. Yet on this one occasion, he had stuck his neck out for a cause that only a few years earlier he had dismissed.

Given Papa’s memory lapses, it’s impossible for me to get the straight story on what drove him to take that fateful walk with Herb. I struggle nevertheless to understand, and have found some insight in my own experiences. A year or so after I began at the Forward—about the time I had my first conversation with Edith Fierst—I spent a weekend with college friends. When my recent visit to Israel came up, they seized on my skepticism—of both the Palestinians and the Israelis—to rail against Zionism. Something snapped; I whipped to Israel’s defense, summoning arguments I had heard at pro-Israel conferences I attend for work. My vehemence surprised even me.

That loss of control betrayed the standards of impartiality I had inherited from Papa. It was his own impartiality that made his decision back in 1947 so hard to understand. As far as I know, my grandfather never disclosed the role he played in Israel’s creation. So what happened in that moment as he acted on instinct and abandoned his neutrality? Perhaps all the time he and I had spent reading and hearing about Jewish history had given us a new window onto the existential threat under which Jews live. Maybe, for him, it was the warm promise of peoplehood after years of universalism. For a rationalist like myself, it is the whiff of the inexplicable that I encountered in my grandfather, and also in myself, that has given me as much insight into the Middle East as anything I encountered in his tattered old book.

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All About My Papa

A journalist unearths a book on Palestine—and his grandfather’s secret history

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